Travel Thursday Live: Catalina

So. . . it’s rainy this morning as I write this, a good 20 degrees cooler than the trip I’m writing about. . . yeah, story of my life. . .
I hate surprises; even if the most beautiful woman who ever existed popped out of thin air in my bedroom and gave me the most pleasurable night in recorded history, I would still tell her, “I wish you’d call first.”
Of course I would tell her this after, but you get the gist.
Something I hate even more is surprise parties, which is why I always go someplace where people who know me can’t find me on my birthday. Usually I’m on assignment—that week in Banff a few years ago was awesome, but just about anywhere in Europe works too—but even when I’m stuck in El Lay I’ll find a place to chill out away from “friends.” Last year I took advantage of the Catalina Express birthday promotion to hit the island, and since I never go to the same place twice on these birthday hideaways, of course I pulled a XX and went back to Catalina, especially with the birthday promotion extended due to it being Avalon’s 100th anniversary. {XX=double cross}
Made a conscious decision to only take my new little camera, not my DSLR—we’ll see how that works. Hope it’s not TOO good, for I just spent $50 getting the DSLR cleaned.
I have absolutely no idea how people function this early; I’m going to be at the jetty before I usually wake up! In fact, I don’t remember much about the bus ride, though I’m sure I didn’t fall asleep. Only a few stops and too early for rush hour, so the subway ride was painless. Much longer and more boring was the Blue Line light rail, though I did notice we were on the Arcadia car, just about where I started. One guy across from me is reading Barth—that’s gotta be a first.
One of the reasons to go this early, even though I’m never up at this hour to eat, is to take advantage of Denny’s own birthday special, a free grand slam. Got off the Blue Line before I needed to, but the Denny’s is not where I remember it from a previous visit. . . and it has no wifi. Still, the place does know how to make breakfast; already a great birthday. . . yum!
Last year I got to the ticket office early—first one there, I think—and then had a long wait. This year I knew better, but despite arriving at 9:15 for the 10 o’clock boat, still went straight up to ticketing and got everything done straight away, though maybe it would have been better to spend some more time with the cute ticket gal; I don’t mind when someone like her wishes me a happy birthday. Then I went over to the tours desk, where a large group of black women was blocking the way as they loudly discussed what tours to take. Somehow I managed to sneak through them—not fun—and bought the Skyline Drive and Behind the Scenes Casino tickets from the smiling little old lady. According to the website, I was going to pay $76.50 for both, only to have it come out to $52 instead! Awesome! Though I was warned I wouldn’t have much time to get from the boat to the tour plaza to catch the first one.
Too many kids running around in steerage class, dammit! Thinking it might indeed be worth paying $15 for commodore class, just to get away from them. Because of those kids it felt like much more than an hour, and in fact the boat did dock 10 minutes late. Luckily I was the second person off, and did a fast walk along the promenade, or whatever they call it. Just as I get there, Cindy the tour guide arrives to take tickets and load the bus, then waits a while for some people who never showed up, so. . .
“We’re gonna see. . . dirt!. . . the most dangerous animal will be driving golf carts. . . that’s the longest wall in El Lay county without graffiti.” Examples as to the level of banter to be expected from the tour guide; makes me long for the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland. . .

Are the gifts unloved, or are they for people who are unloved?

Are the gifts unloved, or are they for people who are unloved?

Another requisite beauty shot.

Another requisite beauty shot.

Requisite beauty shot

Requisite beauty shot

Among the historical tidbits imparted by the guide, Mt. Ada is now owned by u$c! She made a point to mention having seen someone with a UCLA shirt too. (There goes your tip.)
We did see a lot of dirt, as well as rocks and desert scrub, with the occasional views of faraway beaches. One time I saw the mainland mountains. There was a lot of talk about the great fire as well as the drought, and indeed the reservoirs were so dry they looked like the rest of the ground. One that was covered was playing a sound effects tape of predators to keep birds away, which came in handy when I saw the falcons on the beach later on.
Ack! Camera battery warnings! I really need a lot of practice with this new little picturetaker, this is the first time I’ve had to deal with a low battery. We’ll see how far it goes. . .
The midpoint of the Skyline tour is the airport, with a cute little cottage where the manager lives right next to it. Half hour to move around, and I since I hadn’t been drinking much in the morning because of the long travel without restrooms, I was in dire need of the bright orange Gatorade in the general store, only to find it tasted funny—fierce mango. Sigh. Thirsty enough to drink it anyway, but went back for a drumstick—ice cream, not chicken—later.
The ladies working there were hilarious; one got into it with me when I said that the UCLA band playing for the Rolling Stones trumped u$c playing with Fleetwood Mac. . . then I made a Rush reference she didn’t get. She also told me to go over to the blonde at the other register, who would sing for my birthday; I didn’t need to hear that song again, so I settled for a sticker instead. Yes, I’m easy. . .

!058 !063

"Don't touch the Lola. . ."

“Don’t touch the Lola. . .”

On the way into the airport I spotted another road, but couldn’t read the sign; luckily on the way out we’re told that’s El Ranch Escondido, Mr. Wrigley’s ranch from the old days when Arabian horses were bred. According to the guide it’s now a vineyard, and the horses may be coming back; don’t know if the birthday promotion will still be on next year. . .



So, all in all an okay tour, nothing spectacular. Worst part was the loud Armenian lady on the cellphone throughout.
Once back on solid ground I found the eating place I’d looked up on the internet was no longer there, and since I had a hankering for a country fried steak, I walked around quite a bit, looking at all the menus outside the restaurants. Finally I was on the road to the casino when I spotted the menu for their sister place, which I had passed earlier when making my massage appointment. But they tricked me! The chicken fried was actual chicken! WTF? The eggs tasted reconstituted, the bacon was something else tastewise, only the pancakes were usual. Dammit. . . {especially since on my way back to the boat I spotted the place I’d seen on the internet in a new location. . . way too late! And they did have country-fried right there on the menu in big letters!}
Store with the sign “Sorry, we’re open!” Gotta love blatant honesty.
So many smokers. . . hey, two strip clubs! Saw a gal who probably was employed there, considering how she was dressed, but she certainly didn’t impress me to go in. . .
So on to the casino behind the scenes tour, where I get there with five minutes to spare, only to find myself alone. Yep, solo tour! Awesome.
First the usual tidbits; since it starts at the front, there’s some talk about the murals, especially the redheaded mermaid. . . yummy, just my style. Turns out the whole place was built in 14 months! Wow! And for only $2 million. It was also the first theater built with sound movies in mind, which is a fun historical note if you’re into that. Apparently the whole thing is 12 stories high, but it surely doesn’t look it!
Joe the guide first took me around the exterior of the place, past the museum where I had so much fun last year. One of the exhibits is about Marilyn Monroe, who worked selling taffy here when her first husband ran the projection booth when she was 16. Never much of a fan of hers, until I found out we were born at the same hospital in East El Lay; I always thought she was one of those starlets who came to Hollywood with stars in their eyes, instead of being a local girl.
On the way to the back door Joe pointed out the working pay phone, which is indeed rare, and then we went inside and right into the backstage, with the original lighting board still working perfectly, though replacement bulbs had to be handmade every once in a while. Then on to the stage, looking down at the pit; above me I can see Venus on her half shell—and of course I’m thinking of Uma Thurman—then we move on down to the seating area, with the pipe organ on the left side, but the actual pipes hidden behind ceiling art.


The circular domed ceiling looks huge, mostly bare in the middle but painted on the sides. We go up to a little past halfway along the center aisle to what is the acoustic sweet spot, and it’s pretty damned amazing, like an ancient Greek theater; Joe’s foot stomp reverberated for a good five seconds, loudly. Just about the only decoration on the top of the ceiling is twinkling gold-leaf stars where the holes for the scaffolding had originally been. Above the doors and off to the sides are the theater-motif happy and sad faces, though I can’t remember where else in Los Angeles he said they can be found. It’s so well insulated that the theater and the dance floor above cannot hear each other.
On to the lobby, still sporting its original walnut wood, worth millions today; the furniture designed for the place features seashell chairs and sofas that looked like waves. The carpet has been replaced, due to so much use, but with the original design. Then a walk to the left and out of the lobby brings us to a small flight of steps that go right into the first green room, which I found surprising, so close to the lobby. It was pretty small, with some chairs and lighted mirror tables, not really a big deal. Past that were smaller personal green rooms, still in use, and then finally we arrive at the big green room, that can apparently fit a whole orchestra, with new/old couches from Lolo’s barber shop, which for some reason made me laugh. There and along the route are photos of bands who’d played there, mostly but not all unintentionally funny photos; there’s one where the drummer looks just like Jon Lovitz, and another with most of the band looking off to the side at a guy who apparently missed his cue, though I’m thinking they spotted a hot chick over there. . .
On to the projection room, which features the original projector, some others, and a new one that looks like an air conditioner. Next to it is the Wrigley luxury box, with a very intriguing lost and found Egyptian gal painting. Joe tells me not to think of Lincoln as I look out into the theater.
From there it’s on to the giant ramps—Wrigley no doubt got the idea for them from his own Wrigley Field, as a much quicker way to get people in and out and to the restrooms, and easier on the legs, I think. Ignorant of safety codes, the angle of elevation turned out to be barely legal; can only imagine how costly it would have been to redo them.
You’ll be happy to know Joe the guide doesn’t believe the place is haunted. . . although in this photo. . .


Between the theater and the ballroom is the level where people go to the restroom and socialize and such, featuring a lounge with fish paintings that look more 60s than 30s.


Some costume displays, then up another ramp. Inside it’s even harder to believe this is supposedly 10 floors up. And as you reach the top of the ramp the view opens into the world’s largest circular ballroom, huge and beautiful with its original hardwood floor. Best thing Joe told about it was that it had been used as the high school basketball gym for a year, and the locals won league that year; it is not known if the visitors didn’t fare so well because they were in awe of the place or perhaps seasick from the crossing. I tried to imagine it with painted lines, but it wouldn’t coalesce. Joe then reported there were a lot of layers to the floor before it was suspended above the roof of the theater, but he didn’t say why, and my interest in architecture does not extend that deeply, no pun. More interesting were the Tiffany chandeliers, which come down to have their bulbs replaced rather than needing humans to go up there. And that gorgeous seashell-inspired ceiling has never needed repainting. . .



Most of the circle has French doors leading to the balcony, which is worth the cost of the tour just for the views and photo ops. There was an amusing story of guys—who were not allowed to come in without a tie—going out here and dropping the tie to their buddies outside, and so on, but that hardly made a dent in my attention as I took in the marvelous view.

!092 !093

Okay, I have come to the conclusion that it takes a lot of practice to not bring the little camera up to my eye. . .
Once out of the remarkable building–and yes, I heartily recommend everyone take this tour, ask for Joe–I made my way back into town for my massage, though stopping off for my free ice cream along the way, standing outside the spa to finish it without getting brain freeze, thankfully. The massage was like most massages, and with the birthday special at a great price, although. . . is it embarrassing that I strongly smell of lavender? And lying on my front is the worst thing for my back, so I had to cane it when I left.
Nothing else to take in, so I head over to the dock way early, only to find there’s already a big line waiting to board. In front of me is a family of four on a bench, all on cellphones; guess they had enough of each other on this trip. Once again looking at the line, and remembering all those damned rude kids, I took the plunge and paid $15 to upgrade to Commodore class. Still had to wait at the back of the much smaller line, but of course we get in first; saved me at least half an hour of standing in the sun, and no kids. . . well, one kid, who had been standing in line right in front of me with her mom, but mom gave her a hug and sent her onto the boat alone; didn’t see her again, so I imagine she was well-behaved.
On this trip we get the Starship Express, which looks huge yet is actually a catamaran. Once out to sea we got a lot of lateral movement, but not enough to trigger my motion sickness. The snack bar guy forgot me on his free drink runthrough, though, and the cookie that looked to be chocolate chip turned out to be oatmeal raisin; yuck. On the fun side, aside from no kids running around, the PA played “Renegade” by Styx. They had the now rare and elusive Ruffles original, but I forgot to partake. . .
A surprisingly quick walk back to the blue line station, despite using the cane, then a very long light-rail back downtown; certainly seemed longer than the morning ride. Past rush hour, so an easy subway ride as well; hard to realize just how many hours since I’d been here earlier. Waiting for the bus home, there’s a huge construction thingie going on outside Union Station, but luckily it didn’t affect the bus when it came two minutes late. I’d been so tired from all the walking, but sitting on the boat and blue line—feet hurting in my still newish boots—and bus rested me enough to walk home. Barely. At this moment I’m not at all sure I would do this again next year, if the promotion is still on.
On the other hand. . . it might trick those people plotting surprise birthday parties. . . as long as they don’t read this. . .


5 thoughts on “Travel Thursday Live: Catalina

  1. Pingback: Top 15 outings of 2013 | LoganBruin--An Unauthorized Autobiography

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